• orjanpettersen


You’ve done this drill many times in your self defence training. An intense bout of cardiovascular work. Your heart is pumping wildly. Your breath struggling to recover, making your mind slower to act and your body just the same.

Then you’re called into action. Your partner executes an attack. You have to respond.

These drills are intended to imitate the physiological reaction that’s naturally associated with the shock and stress of the immediate prospect or threat of violence.

Although almost as close as you can get in everyday training, they go as far as replicating some of the limitations on the coordination of your motor system and your thinking abilities, when faced with trauma.

What they are aiming to do is showing the effect of an immediate release of adrenaline into your system. This release, kicking in during fear, is an evolutionary design to aid you in a physical action. Pain is reduced or not noticed. You become stronger and more resilient.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, adrenaline carries multiple downsides that, if you’re not aware of these in your self defence practice and preparation, will surprise and limit you in a reality-based scenario.

Your heart rate can jump from its normal beat rate to over 200 beats per minute (BPM). This sudden explosion in BPM will immediately reduce your capabilities in moving, thinking and technical sophistication during a violent, or prospective violent, conflict.

As the amygdala (a small part of your mammalian, or animal brain) takes over, it overrides via its chemical authority the rational consciousness and many of the trained responses you have. This is why so many people simply freeze - like the famous deer in the headlights - or have difficulty in recollecting sequences and timing of trauma or shock-inducing incidents after they’ve taken place.

This adrenal response with its elevated BPM also significantly affects your motor skills.

Those with a normal heart rate will start to lose fine motor skills at around 110-120 BPM. Imagine the ease you open the front door with your key every day. Now consider the same action being pursued by a madman with a knife and you’ll understand this first loss of skill associated with an adrenaline-caused rise in BPM.

At around 140-150 BPM your complex motor skills will start to go. This affects hand-to-eye coordination, tracking movement and timing and executing complicated or multi-sequential fighting techniques.

Reaching 170-180 BPM will reduce depth perception, cause tunnel vision and even temporary memory loss and as it gets close to 200 or above many people will lose rational thought or even the ability to move or react.

The effect of adrenaline should be a central thought in your training regime, applied at several levels.

Firstly, the realisation of the impact on your motor skills and ability to recollect complex thought should shape your curriculum and classes.

Simplicity in techniques, either through integrating the same technique to cover multiple scenarios (such as both armed or unarmed circular attacks or impact weapon defences from different angles) will prevent the student from having to make complex choices in high-stress situations and has the added benefit of multiplying the training of the same technique as you cover different attack options.

Secondly, higher stress training, from simple methods such as using darkness, strobe lighting or unusual settings, adding in unsuspected attack scenarios, with intense cardiovascular preparation will go some way in reproducing the physiological effects of adrenaline and and loss of motor skills.

Thirdly, an accurate awareness from the instructors and coaches as to student responses in these scenarios should aid them to reshape the curriculum and classes to bring in simplification and methodology to help the student deal with out-of-dojo scenarios.

Do you need to change the techniques you use? Do the students have too many choices and fail from making poor choices under stress? Is the intensity and familiarity of the training environment conducive or prejudicial to the effects of adrenaline-induced violence?

Finally, teach your students breathing and thinking techniques to deal with stress, especially if it’s building up more slowly.

Inhale slowly through the nose, hold briefly and exhale through the mouth. Teach students facing a trauma to use the word ‘But’ in their thinking when feeling overcome by fear with the danger of paralysis or the natural reaction to inactivity. ‘But... this is what I will do’. It’s a trigger to activity and call to action used as a psychological ‘trigger’ to act.

Self defence is a complex topic covering much more than the simple execution of techniques and tactics in a clinical dojo environment.

The psychology of violence and behaviour of criminals is an important aspect to understand, so is your own situational awareness and body language skills.

The legal side of applying violence must also be studied by the practitioner to stay judicially safe and the medical emergency self care response, if injured in a conflict, is another beneficial topic.

This article is aimed at drawing attention to another critical issue; the understanding of physiology in violence and the impact it should have on our training and teaching.

Modern, 21st century self defence training is developing and we all have a responsibility to evolve it to the best it can be.

Applying reality in physiology is a key part of that journey.


Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire, UK

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